Monday, 25 February 2013

I'm moving

I've really enjoyed writing this blog over the last three years. And I'm going to carry on writing it, but at a new home!

I've consolidated both my blogs: this one and my consumer blog and they can now both be found at

Please join me over there.


Friday, 18 January 2013

Every day sourdough baking

A gratuitous picture of a loaf of sourdough, baked this morning

I get asked, a lot, if sourdough bread is hard to make. I am tempted to say "really hard" to make myself look clever but the truth is, it isn't.

Sourdough seems uniquely complicated amongst bread baking. I don't know if it's purposely shrouded in mystery. I know that it took me about two years to finally get down to it, to be brave enough to try, as it seemed magical and mystical. It is, but it isn't difficult. The hardest thing about sourdough baking is being mentally ready.

Because once you have a good starter going, sourdough baking is almost bomb proof.

I bake sourdough about three times a week. Mostly I bake this bread, which is half wholemeal and half white.

Although I only bake half of the amount in that recipe, so 500g of flour, 200g levain (starter), 333g of water and I've got the salt down to just one teaspoon.

I divide the dough up to prove over two baton shaped bannetons so I have bread for two bakes.

It's easy. The hard bit with sourdough, in terms of faff, has always been the starting off of it. Once I've weighed it out and refreshed the starter I know I need to be relatively close for the first three kneads (ten mins apart) and not too far for the one that requires a 30 minute rest. But after that I can do the school run or go out or do whatever. If I know I'm not going to be back in time - be really ages - then I put it in the fridge, and when I get back, simply bring it back to room temperature and take up where I left off.

You could never do that with bread with commercial yeast, because the yeast would get exhausted.

I've had a sourdough loaf going over three days.

Various people have said to me that they want to try sourdough baking. Instead of abstemious resolutions that make you feel miserable (isn't January miserable enough?) try a resolution that will make you feel really good. With a good loaf you always have a meal. And when everyone else is out panic buying because it might snow, you can be smug knowing that with your starter, some flour, water and salt you can turn those tins of stock-piled baked beans into something really glorious.

Friday, 14 December 2012

What to do when someone gives you some of their starter so you can start your own starter..

A present of a little of your established starter really can be the present that keeps on giving

My starter came from my friend Emily; about three years ago now. Her starter was already going on for 18 months old itself, if I recall correctly.

Since I got that fantastic, promising present, my own starter has gone on to spawn many other sourdough starters, not least that of John-Paul Flintoff.

Anyway. I've been meaning to, for ages, write up here about What To Do when someone gives you some starter, so here I go.

You could of course give someone a full jar of starter ready to go since, if you have some levain on the go, it wouldn't take long at all for you to build it up to a whole other working jar size. But this isn't madly practical unless you can actually hand it over in person. And, also people like to build it up themselves. So what I do when I'm sharing starter is send it on the dry side, so it's less frisky and likely to tire itself out. I either send it in a small plastic lidded box or double bag it in those sealable sandwich bags.

Hopefully, before you are sent a starter of starter, you will have ready:

A large jar
Some white, strong bread flour.
Weigh the jar when it's empty and make a note of it.

What you do when you get it is this:

Put the starter in your jar. Add 50g white strong bread flour, and 40g of out of the tap water. Mix it up well and put the jar aside. In the fridge or a cool place in your kitchen.

You don't need to remove any starter, you do that when your starter is big and to keep refreshing it would mean you'd end up with unfathomable amounts of the stuff.

The next day, if you want to, take out a tablespoon of starter and discard it. There is no reason for this, it just kinda feels authentic. Add another 50g white strong bread flour and 40g of water.

What you want to do is build up so that you have about 300g of starter in your jar (because for most breads you use about 200g of starter). So you keep repeating this until your jar is about 3/4 full when it's just refreshed.

Never fill it up to the top as if you do, as the starter grows (because it will go up and down during the day until it settles) the jar can explode. Don't worry if you look at your starter during the day and it regularly goes up to near the top, that's normal. What it mustn't ever be is that full when it's just ben refreshed.

When you've got about 300g of starter going (this is why you weigh the jar empty) you're ready to go. Every time you bake - presuming you use 200g of starter, refresh your jar with 120g of white bread flour and 100g of water. Or, if it's looking a bit full already, 100g of flour and 80g of water.

And you're ready for a life time of baking.

Unless you bake every day, keep your starter in the fridge. I bake bread about 2/3 times a week and never need to discard starter to refresh it, I just use it straight from the jar.

I hope this makes sense, do ask any Qs if you need to (on here please so others can benefit).

Wednesday, 13 June 2012


Aerial view before going into the oven

Schiacciata means squashed in Italian, and this is a recipe for a sort of foccaccia bread with grapes squashed into it. It's not a sourdough recipe, you don't need a bread maker. It's really very simple. I have had this recipe for ages, cut out from an Italian magazine and converted into English stuff.

It's an odd bread though. People often say to me things like "oh God I couldn't make my own bread I'd just spend all day eating it". Well, I don't spend all day eating bread. I think this is largely because sourdough (what I usually make every day) is delicious, but satisfying. Even though it's a sum of parts of water, flour and salt, the way it's made makes it far more satisfying than bread made with commercial yeast plus those same parts. My partner makes a foccacia that is so addictive I am as bloated as a puffer fish by the end of a meal as I carry on eating it well after my stomach is stretched to fullness.

This is an odd bread, however, because what would you eat it with? Well cheese is an obvious one. A salty cheese especially I think (actually, almost any after-dinner type cheese, I just really wanted to write the words 'salty cheese'). And I think it would be perfectly wonderful with Parma ham. Whatever you have it with, it makes for a very attractive centre piece, would make a lovely present, is easy and quick to make but really needs to be eaten within a day of making it. It's lovely warm, but not too hot, from the oven. And it's very hard to resist, so don't make this if you've just gone on a diet (loathsome word). You won't get a big, airy crumb. This is altogether a more cakey bread.

So, this is what you need:

1tsp of dried, fast acting yeast (I use Dove's)
1tbsp of caster sugar
80ml extra virgin olive oil
Fresh rosemary sprigs, I dunno, like about five or six
200 strong white bread flour
200-300g red or black seedless grapes, washed and dried, all off the stems.
a generous half a teaspoon of salt

You can easily double up or treble the recipe. I double it usually and make it in a big rectangular tin. But really, that gives you enough for a dinner party and you don't really want that unless you are actually having a dinner party. And as this bread doesn't keep I'd keep the quantities modest until such time as you know you'll be feeding the five thousand.

This is what you do:

Chop up the rosemary sprigs (take the leaves off the stems) until you have very finely chopped bits, about a tablespoon's worth. Put in the olive oil in a pan and warm very gently through for a few minutes. Then take it off the heat and let it cool and infuse. You want it to be back down to kinda blood temperature, honestly as long as it's not boiling hot you can't go wrong.

Whilst that's happening, mix the yeast in 90ml of warm water and a scant tsp of the caster sugar (more like half really, kinda like a pinch). Whisk gently and leave for 10 mins until frothy. Maybe longer, but it will have frothed and puffed up a bit.

Now add the flour and salt to a bowl, make a well in the middle and then the yeast mixture and half the rosemary oil. Mix together roughly with your hands until you've got it mostly together. Leave, covered, for about 8-10 mins.

Turn out onto an oiled board and knead for about ten seconds. Leave for 8-10 mins.

Turn it out onto an oiled board again and knead for about ten seconds. It should be all nice and smooth now. If not then do it one more time. If it looks good and smooth, cover with a bowl and leave to rise at room temperature for 1-2 hours. Sorry not to be more accurate, but it depends on your room temperature. Until it's doubled in size. As a guide, my kitchen was at 22C and it took about 90 mins.

When you feel it's ready, oil a suitable oven proof dish - you can use a round cake tin (23/24cm) or a rectangular one. You need something with sides really as you're going to be brushing it with a lot of oil and you want to keep the oil in the dough, not escaping out onto a baking tray. I sort of squash the bread in, and over about 10 - 15 mins (so the dough is nice and relaxed) I push it out to the sides of the tin so it fills it. You want a thin layer of dough, not thin-crust pizza thin, but about 1-2cm thick.

Now squash the grapes in. I say squash but don't break them, kinda push them in. Brush the bread with the remaining oil. yes it will see like a lot. Now scatter over some more rosemary, sprinkle over some caster sugar (not loads) and set aside for about half an hour, covered with cling film or a very wrung out damp teatowel.

In the meantime preheat the oven to 250 (or as high as it will go if not as high as that). Bake for about 10-12 mins, then turn down to 220 for a further ten mins or so. It's done when it's golden brown.

Cooked and heavily nibbled by someone.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

What to do with your starter when you go away

This piece in the Guardian today is getting quite a lot of attention on Twitter. I think some people have taken it a tad too seriously...(it's about checking your sourdough start into a hotel).

But it does bring me onto something pertinent, which is that people who I've got into sourdough (I'm a sourdough pusher) and have shared my starter with, have gone into a panic about going away.

It's really no big deal. If you go away on holiday:

Make sure your starter is in a big enough jar to cope with any expansion.
If you're worried about your start erupting (I never do, but I know some people do) then refresh it about 24hrs before you go away, not just as you leave. So you can keep an eye on it.
Keep the starter drier than usual so it's less frisky.
Put your starter in the fridge.

I have to say, I don't do anything different as I know my jar is big enough and I know how my starter behaves, but just to be extra cautious.

It'll be fine. When you come back, refresh it as normal once or twice before you bake.

That's all. Happy hols!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Burger/hotdog buns

The hole in my bread-making repertoire was, until yesterday, burger-bun shaped. Despite making my own sourdough, bagels, monkey bread, pizza, I hadn't managed to make (in truth hadn't ever really tried as I thought it was beyond me) any sort of soft roll to enclose a burger or sausage or hot dog. And any time we bought them in the supermarket, those cotton woolly rolls, I felt more annoyed with myself.

I really dislike supermarket bread.

Yesterday we had people round and we were going to make spicy butternut squash soup and sausages in a roll. So I determined to finally make my own rolls.

I remembered, a while back, Dan Lepard had written about making burger buns (the article and full recipe is here), and the response had been that they were very good. So I gave them a go.

Because we had so many people round I doubled the recipe, and I hope Dan will forgive me for reproducing it here, but I just find it easier to have everything in one place.

You need: (Dan says this makes about 6-8, I made them smaller and submarine roll shaped and got about 24 out of doubling the mixture).

275g sliced white onion
50ml sunflower oil plus extra for greasing the surface you knead on
75g low fat yoghurt (I used Greek yoghurt, as that's what I had)
2tsp of honey (oil the spoon first so the honey just drops off)
1 medium egg
1 sachet or 7g fast-action yeast (I use Dove's Farm)
75g wholemeal (normal, plain) flour
425g strong white bread flour
2tsp salt (I grind up Maldon sea salt)
poppy seeds

The first thing you do is put the onions, with the oil and a bit of water, into a pan and let them sweat until very soft and translucent, with all of the moisture gone. Leave to cool then tip into a large bowl (with any oil that's still in the pan). To this add yog, honey and egg. Then add 125ml warm water and the yeast, the flours and salt. Mix together. You will very likely have to add more water - Dan suggests 50ml - it depends on how much moisture is in the onions and how you like your dough to be. I'm quite confident now with a very soft dough. But add the water bit by bit to see how you go.

Leave for 10 mins then tip it out onto an oiled surface and knead lightly for 10 seconds. Cover with a bowl or put back in the bowl and cover..and repeat this twice more - leaving it for ten mins then kneading it for ten seconds.

After the third knead, leave it covered and undisturbed for one hour.

Then take bits off it and start shaping - either large round buns, or long ones, whatever you like. Put on a baking parchment lined tray. Brush with water and sprinkle on poppy seeds (or you know, any seeds you like or no seeds). Cover and leave to rise for about 90 mins - Dan says until they're 50% risen. In my kitchen (about 21 degrees) this timing was pretty spot on.

Put rolls into a preheated oven: 220C. Dan says 15 mins, mine were done in 10 (my oven is very hot), they're done when they're just "brown on top".

They are delicious - really soft and tasty. I didn't tell the children there was onion in the dough and they all seemed to love the rolls. And it saves having to add onions to the burger/hot dog, although you can add more if you want to. There's really no sharp taste of onion or anything like that. That said, if you want to leave the onion out, I asked Dan and he said "the precooking of the onions sweetens them and softens the flavour, but leave them out if you like and only add in half the oil to the dough."

Really top notch, so easy and delicious. I have frozen some for emergency burger needs.

Now, someone gave me a recipe for panettone last year: if it was you please could you let me have it again?

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Absent but busy, baker

Anyone visiting this blog probably thinks I gave up on the sourdough.


I bake all our own bread several times a week! I just ordered a new banneton, this time going for the more expensive Matfer one at £26.99 (just saying it made my eyes water), rather than the cheaper one I got last time which has already fallen apart after 18 months use (the other, cheaper ones, are fine still but the 1K round one was the one I used most). Matfer are industrial strength so they should last. I did toy with Vannerie which are hand made but really, that is too much for me.

Am also toying with idea of baking cloche, anyone have one? I feel it's a bit superfluous as my oven is a great oven which makes lovely sourdough, and next year we're building a wood fired oven in the garden. But I did wonder if anyone had one, and if so what they thought of it?

I did mean to do a post over the summer, as I had so many enquiries about 'what to do with my starter when I go on holiday'. Honestly people. You just put it in the fridge, enjoy your holiday, and refresh * the starter when you get back. One friend even thought he had to bring the starter with him on holiday. I'd have loved to have seen customs deal with that.

*take out half of it, refresh with 125g strong white bread flour, 100g cold water, stir and leave for about 12 hours before using it to make dough.